Ford Motor Co. yesterday became the first U.S. automaker to commit to producing a gas-electric hybrid vehicle, a version of its Ford Escape SUV that the company says will hit the market by 2003. Ford estimates that the hybrid Escape will get about 40 miles per gallon, compared to 20-28 mpg for the conventional Escape. Still, Ford is three years behind Honda and Toyota, which are selling gas-electric hybrid vehicles this year. In addition to its hybrid Insight, already on the market, Honda is developing hybrid versions of its Civic and CR-V SUV. DaimlerChrysler and General Motors are also working on hybrid SUVs, but have not announced plans to bring them to market.